Utahnna's Story: She Became Withdrawn And Isolated, Then Was Shot To Death

Utahnna Bearcomesout's family and friends remember her as a fun person and a caring mother. They also remember how she cut herself off from others during her marriage to the man now accused of killing her.

Clair McFarland

June 09, 20249 min read

Utahnna Bearcomesout's family remember her as fun-loving, outgoing and a good mother. She also became withdrawn and isolated in the years before she was shot to death.
Utahnna Bearcomesout's family remember her as fun-loving, outgoing and a good mother. She also became withdrawn and isolated in the years before she was shot to death. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

In the years before a Fort Washakie woman’s husband allegedly shot her to death in April, her family and friends noticed she was becoming isolated.

Utahnna Bearcomesout, 36, was in a relationship with Conrad Tillman, 37, for more than a decade, and the pair got married approximately nine years ago, Bearcomesout’s sisters told Cowboy State Daily last month.

The sisters, Chanel and Rafina Azbill, said they aren’t sure exactly when the pair got married: They wed quietly.

The sisters remember Bearcomesout as fun, outgoing, and a warm mother to her two children – one of whom graduated from high school a month after her death.

In their childhood, Bearcomesout let her little sisters listen to 90s hip hop music in her room. She was an avid runner and a basketball player in high school.

She and her beloved little brother, Jared Bearcomesout, would race — and she’d beat him.

As an adult living in the verdant Wind River Indian Reservation, she walked her dogs daily.  

But beginning in about 2015, Bearcomesout started retreating into herself, Chanel Azbill said.

“I think it was more (Tillman’s) idea,” Rafina added. “That’s when he started becoming more controlling.”

Chanel said the family saw Bearcomesout less frequently through the years. She skipped out on family events, even Easter, Chanel said.

She still made it to her job at the Holiday Inn Express in Lander, the sisters said.

The Drive

On April 14 at about 9 p.m., Tillman was driving Bearcomesout and their 10-year-old daughter on a highway south of Fork Washakie in his pickup truck, according to an evidentiary affidavit filed last month, which became public for the first time Thursday.

They were arguing, the document relates.

Tillman later told FBI Special Agent Terence Hill that as he drove 60 mph, Bearcomesout hit him multiple times, almost causing a crash. He stopped the truck, grabbed a gun he kept in it and pointed it at her head, he reportedly said.

Tillman’s plan was just to get her to leave him alone, “but the gun went off,” striking Bearcomesout in the head, he told police, reportedly.

He shouted the F-word, placed the pickup truck in park and flagged down a passing vehicle. He asked the driver to call 911, as he had just shot his wife, the affidavit says.

“I did not observe any wounds or bruising on Tillman,” reflected Hill, in the affidavit.

A Man, Pacing

Wind River Police Department officers who first responded to the passerby’s 911 call found Tillman walking beside the passerby’s van, saying “I f***ed up!” according to the document.

They handcuffed him and put him in their patrol vehicle.

Looking into Tillman’s truck, they saw Bearcomesout slouched over in the passenger seat, unresponsive with blood streaming from her head, ears, nose and mouth, reportedly.

They couldn’t find a pulse. She was pronounced dead at 9:43 p.m.

In The Truck

Next, Hill examined the truck. He found a 9mm pistol with one round in the chamber and three more in the magazine, wedged between the driver’s seat and center seat, reportedly.

The agent wrote that he found one spent bullet casing on the dashboard against the windshield on the passenger side.

The windshield on the passenger side of the truck bore what looked like a bullet hole, according to the affidavit.

Autopsy physician Dr. Randall Frost and Fremont County Coroner Erin Ivie deemed the death a homicide, caused by a gunshot wound to the head.

Tillman faces one count of second-degree murder, which is punishable by life in prison, in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming.

Lots Of Cops Out Tonight

Rafina Azbill was visiting her mother that night, after a day of working at the Shoshone Rose Casino.

She and another sister, Janice – the baby of the family at 19 years old – decided to go to their shared home along with Rafina’s kids. They loaded everyone up in the car and drove into the night.   

Several police officers were parked on the road, flashing their lights.

“Look at all them cops,” Rafina said, on the drive.

Janice also sleepily noted the large police presence.

Once they were home, Rafina put her boys to bed, then went to bed herself.

Janice wanted to stay up and clean her own room for a while.

Rafina felt like she’d been asleep “forever,” when Janice rushed into her room at about 11 p.m. and said, “Rafina, get up.”

Janice kept saying, “We gotta get up to Mom’s – Conrad shot Utahnna,” Rafina recalled.

Rafina woke her boys and they all drove back to her mother’s home.

An FBI agent was there, saying things like, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Grieving Alone

Chanel, who lives in North Dakota, would not hear of her sister’s death until early the next morning, April 15.

“I was woken by my mother and my sisters – by the phone call,” Chanel recalled.

With other siblings near her, Janice told Chanel the news.  

“I didn’t know what to say. I was shocked. I hung up the phone and they had to call me back,” she said.

Chanel cried into the phone.

Janice told her to come home – that the family needed her.

Chanel was home for a short stay by that Friday, April 19.

Now back at her home in North Dakota, she cleans her house, goes to church, and prays for her family – a process she calls “grieving alone” – apart from the tightknit family living in Fort Washakie.

When It Comes To Her

Ota Walking Elk met Bearcomesout at Flandreau Indian School, a boarding school in South Dakota, while the pair attended high school there. Bearcomesout’s boarding school years came after her earlier childhood on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where she attended Wyoming Indian Elementary School.

Flandreau’s strict curfew and residential rules drove the girls into their shared room, and into a close relationship when they were roommates their junior year.

They also played basketball together.

At just 5-foot-4, “she was small, she was quick,” remembered Walking Elk. “I’m tall and – not so quick.”

Bearcomesout was a “great” person, Walking Elk told Cowboy State Daily.

“She was known as being always so nice. I can’t think of anybody who’d have something bad to say about her,” said Walking Elk. “I know you hear that a lot when someone passes away, yet it’s so true when it comes to her.”

One Last Memory

Perhaps that sweetness in Bearcomesout made her more vulnerable to controlling behavior, Walking Elk said.

“And they had a kid together, you know, so I can imagine that made it even harder to leave and get the help she needed to,” she added.

Six years ago the two women took a trip to Seattle, Washington, for their 30th birthdays, which were just a couple months apart from one another. The trip interrupted years of not seeing each other.

They stayed in an AirBNB together, with Walking Elk’s sister and other friends in a separate one.

They crammed in the sights, visiting the Seattle Space Needle, going to a museum with tribal artifacts, catching a Minnesota Vikings game and riding a giant Ferris wheel.

Cutting Off

A few weeks later, Bearcomesout cut Walking Elk out of her life, the latter said.

“He (Tillman) reached out to me; he said to leave them alone,” Walking Elk said. “Eventually Utahnna did quit talking to me – I’m sure (it was) to please him, and for peace at home. So we didn’t talk for years before she passed away.”

At the time, Walking Elk tried to respect her friend’s decision. Now she wants to bring awareness to situations like these.

Walking Elk said it pains her that Bearcomesout’s memory is tangled up with the story of the man accused of killing her. And yet, “Bringing awareness is all you can do.”

“When it comes to the actual person, you feel like your hands are tied, because they still make their own choices regardless,” she said.

And Then, Graduation

Pam Coby got to know Bearcomesout’s son, who is now a young man, during her time as a schoolbus driver for Wyoming Indian Schools, Coby told Cowboy State Daily.

Like a satellite mother, Coby kept an eye on the boy. She gave her cellphone number to Bearcomesout in case of incidentals, and never forgot to ask about the boy as he grew older and transferred to Lander Valley High School.

“She was always so proud of him,” Coby recalled. Bearcomesout would gush about her son’s running career in cross country, about his high school years in Lander.

In early April, weeks before the boy’s graduation, Bearcomesout asked Coby – who now lives in Idaho – to make his ribbon shirt; a celebratory tribal shirt signifying pride and accomplishment.

“She wanted me to do it for him because he always used to talk about me, about me driving the bus and stuff,” Coby said.

Bearcomesout told Coby what colors she wanted, and Coby agreed to make the shirt, she said.

“She was like, ‘I don’t know what I did to deserve a great kid,’” Coby recalled from that conversation.

Coby told her that it just happens that way sometimes, adding, “You’re a good mom.”

A few days later, Coby heard of Bearcomesout’s death.

She pressed on, finished the ribbon shirt and mailed it to the youth’s grandmother in early May, she said.

But she was still grappling with her surprise when she spoke to Cowboy State Daily.

“She was just an awesome person to talk to, when I’d see her,” said Coby. “She always hugged me. She was always kind.”

‘Good Heart’

Bearcomesout’s mother is wracked with sorrow over her daughter’s death, Rafina said. The two oldest siblings in the family of eight children died years earlier, and it hurt.

“But losing Utahnna, it really broke us – because of how she was taken from us,” said Rafina. Chanel said she wants people to remember Bearcomesout as a good older sister, a loving mom.

“Utahnna has been there for all of us. She’s never judged us. She just had a good heart like that,” said Chanel.

For Walking Elk, the hardest part is knowing that Bearcomesout’s children no longer have her.

She learned about Bearcomesout’s death just as she was organizing an event to bring awareness to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous people, via her group, Indigenous Professionals.

The irony of that timing hit her during her interview, and she wept.

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter